An Exhilarating, Fresh Take On Gangster Movies Emerges In J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year.

A Most Violent Year.
Director: J.C. Chandor.
Writer: J.C. Chandor.
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks.
Playing At: Angelika Film Center (Dallas and Plano).

1981 was a most vile year for New York: Murders were at an all-time high (a reported 2,166 took place); crime was a way of living; bad guys ran rampant; and being one of the good guys became harder as the days passed.

This is the backdrop for J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, a new and refreshing tale in the gangster film canon.

A Most Violent Year stars Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis and, soon enough, J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) as Abel Morales, owner of Standard Heating Oil. He's an honest man — and that's hurting his business. You see, his truck tanks are being robbed by two anonymous, degenerate thugs (one played by Girls' Christopher Abbott), and he's losing thousands of dollars in oil with each steal. Best as Morales can surmise, it's one of his competitors that's behind the sabotage. He just lacks the hard facts to prove it is all. Meanwhile, the same goes for district attorney Lawrence (Selma's David Oyelowo), who is investigating Morales' company, hoping to bust it for fraud.

Before long, it becomes abundantly clear: Morales is going to have to overcome these overwhelming adversities if he wants to make his mark in his world.

But at what cost?

When we first meet Morales, he's making a deal to buy out a promising new location that will expand his company greatly. Things are looking up, assuming he can come up with the funds needed to make the purchase. And, at first, this doesn't seem to be an issue. Of course, that’s when the proverbial shit hits the fan: The bank he was supposed to get a large loan from drops him to avoid shame and trouble for any alleged mob connections; making matters worse, Morales is losing more money than he's making every time one of his trucks get hijacked, which is now becoming a weekly trend.

With only a few days left to contract his new location, Honest Abel's loyalty to being a virtuous businessman is pushed to uncomfortable limits. Will he fold and finally indulge in a gangster's paradise or will he show once and for all that nothing can change a man's true nature? A Most Violent Year is hungry to answer this question.

But while trying to play it straight, Morales' real hindrance is his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain). She has an antsy, sadistic side to her that's just aching to come out. Also, as one scene makes certain to show, she's got more balls and gall than her husband ever will. She's lethal and dangerous. Unfortunately for her, however, bullets don't carry much weight if your brain is as half-cocked as your gun.

As Anna, Chastain convinces as the real cold bitch she's supposed to play. But her efforts are easily forgotten with limited screen time. In other words: She's not in it enough to offer much. No, it's Isaac who really leads the film. And he does an exceptional job restraining Morales' nervous impatience, showing well that his intentions are always simple and lucid.

What's weird about all this is that the marketing push for this film really hams up this husband-and-wife duo as some sort of energetic and possibly dangerous collective. Alas, they're no Bonnie and Clyde.

The real badass here is writer-director J.C. Chandor. In what could have been just another bloody story plagued with all the gimmicks that come with crime movies, his taut script and insightful observation on the mobster lifestyle keeps audiences guessing at every turn. And while the ominous ambiance hanging over every scene teases likely outcomes, Chandor's sure to throw in plenty of surprises, too.

As a result, his A Most Violent Year is astute and stylish — a film that's fully aware of the kind of movie it wants to be.

This is a film about crime in New York that, unlike Scorsese and Coppola's takes, doesn't rely too heavily violence and mayhem to paint its picture. Sure, there are some ghastly scenes — one in particular that will rattle (or perhaps even wreck) your nerves — but what really sets A Most Violent Year as an enjoyable gangster film is the way in which it acts as something of a detox from the genre's many tired tropes.

Grade: B.

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